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Thursday Week 2 saw LUSU President, Joel Pullan, and the government’s immigration minister, Mike Harper, discuss the Coalition’s 2014 Immigration Bill that seeks to force international students to pay a contributory tax towards their healthcare. Pullan, furnished with a mandate for a strong anti-government rhetoric, had been given the opportunity to engage in constructive debate regarding a bill with underlying flaws. Instead, he was a rabbit in the headlights, confused and dangerously ill-informed.
Published on the LUSU website, the edifice of Pullan’s argument rests upon the thesis that, as “the NHS has never been a contribution based system” and given that the NHS is “free for everybody to use,” government attempts to extract contributions from international students is discriminatory.
It must be established that claiming “the NHS has never been a contribution based system” is wholly inaccurate. On the contrary, the 1942 Beveridge Report enshrined contribution at the heart of the planned post-war settlement. Beveridge insisted that “under the scheme of social insurance… every citizen of working age will contribute… Benefit in return for contributions, rather than free allowance from the state, is what the people of Britain want.” The assertion that “it is free for everybody to use” misinformed. It is the majority’s National Insurance contribution that ensures the NHS is “free at the point of delivery.” National Insurance, so named, because of the contributory factor.
However, Pullan’s insistence that the NHS is not a contributory system creates a paradoxical position. In asking Harper “how he could justify placing fees upon… student[s] that bring more value to the UK economy than the costs associated with their use of the NHS,” Pullan is inferring international students contribute indirectly. This is reinforced when Pullan notes that, as 78% of international students work or plan to work part-time, “they would be making National Insurance contributions and some will also be paying tax.” Pullan here upholds and legitimises the government’s position that international students should directly contribute.
His misinformed interpretation of facts further undermines the economic basis of his argument. The 2013 Finance Bill determined that National Insurance contribution was dependent upon weekly earnings of over £149. Here, the 2011 “Immigration: Tier 4 student visa reform” established that an international student may work up to twenty hours a week earning, from October 1st 2013, at least £5.03 an hour (for 18-20 year olds) or £6.31 (for the over 20s.) Given that average UK weekly student wages total £112.20, for an international student to enter the National Insurance bracket they must earn £7.46 an hour, in defiance of a national student average of £5.61. Whilst it is inconceivable that some international students do not earn £7.46 the national average certainly demands that this cohort comprise a sizeable minority of the 488,240 international students. The assertion that “some will also be paying tax” is questionable. The 2013 Finance Bill set the pre-income tax threshold at £9440. Given the limitations of a 20-hour week on international students, income-tax is dependent on international students earning £9.05 an hour over the course of the year. Whilst this is not implausible, these international students stand apart from the majority, evidence thus suggesting the majority of international students may avoid the apparatuses of direct contribution.
Indeed, Pullan further expounds his confused doctrine of contribution when he notes the Royal College of General Practitioners voiced concerns regarding the estimated £500 million required to meet the costs – Pullan advocating a view of the Bill based on a practical-cost base analysis.
However, Pullan’s case rests upon the £500 million implementation figure. The beginning of the RCGP’s 2013 Home Office Consultation Paper did indeed object to the fact the 2014 Immigration Bill had the potential to be financially unviable. However, if Pullan had continued to read the report he would have noted this cost, and therefore the objection, was solely dependent upon the government’s legislation alienating patients by treating GPs as pseudo-border guards. Instead, in terms of international students’ contributions, the RCGP stated that “we support the principle that all temporary… migrants should make a fair contribution to the costs of their healthcare if a cost-effective, fair system could be found.” If the government can circumnavigate the RCGP’s concerns, which the Bill’s second reading appeared to suggest, Pullan’s economic argument is dismantled. His position again forces him to concede to the legitimacy of the government’s proposals.
Thus, instead of arguing against contribution, Pullan legitimised contribution in the hope of constructing a worthwhile economic argument. However, erroneous evidence leaves Pullan’s case untenable; his well-grounded concern that government rhetoric might leave the UK a less-attractive international student destination obscured by a knee-jerk argument that sought to appeal to the populist position he so loudly decried. His leadership of the debate stands as a shattered visage precisely because it was he who shattered it, Mr. Harper gleefully providing him the tools.
For the Bill’s opponents a well-considered debate must be constructed outside the confines of contribution – an argument it will find increasingly difficult to win.